“We’re not idiots,” Packers CEO Mark Murphy told reporters in January. “Aaron Rodgers will be back. He’s our leader.”
Murphy said this one day after the Packers lost to the Buccaneers in last season’s NFC championship game. Rodgers seemed crushed by that defeat, and explained why during his postgame press conference. “[The Packers have] a lot of guys’ futures that are uncertain—myself included,” he said. “That’s what’s sad about it most, getting this far. Obviously, it’s going to be an end at some point, whether we make it past this one or not, but just the uncertainty is tough and finality of it all.”
A week earlier, Rodgers told reporters, “My future is a beautiful mystery.”
The mystery deepened Thursday in spectacular fashion, overshadowing the first round of the NFL draft and tossing the league into a state of chaos. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Rodgers is “so disgruntled” that he “has told some within the organization that he does not want to return to the team.” Fox’s Jay Glazer confirmed that report and wrote that Rodgers is “pretty strongly convicted that he doesn’t want to go back to Packers.” Trey Wingo reported that the Packers brass told Rodgers they would trade him in the offseason, but later changed their minds. “It’s been a bleep show between them ever since,” Wingo tweeted. “And within the last week Rodgers told the team ... trade or no trade I’m not coming back.” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst vehemently denied this after the first round.
Sources: The Packers reportedly told Aaron Rodgers they were going to trade him in the off season, then backed off. It’s been a bleep show between them ever since. And within the last week Rodgers told the team.. trade or no trade I’m not coming back. Buckle up folks— trey wingo (@wingoz) April 29, 2021
Rodgers has been with Green Bay since he was drafted in 2005. He’s passed for more than 50,000 yards and 400 touchdowns. He went from usurping franchise legend Brett Favre to matching him in Super Bowl wins (one), MVP awards (three), and legendary Packers moments (4,387). Rodgers is the face of the Packers, and he’s been called the most gifted quarterback ever to play football. Now he wants out.
If Rodgers gets Green Bay to send him elsewhere, it would mark the first time a reigning MVP has ever been traded. It would also change the NFL’s competitive landscape as we know it. So how did the relationship between one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time and the league’s most storied franchise go completely to shit?
The Rodgers news flood came this week, but the pressure had clearly been building for months before the dam broke. That makes the timing of these reports curious. If Rodgers’s camp leaked this information Thursday, it had to know that waiting until hours before the draft probably would not lead to a trade. Astonishingly, Gutekunst said he didn’t get much trade interest in Rodgers after news of the quarterback’s unhappiness broke. “Sometime after 5 o’clock, after a lot of the stuff had kind of hit the airwaves, I got I think one call,” Gutekunst told reporters. “It was very brief, and that was it.”
By the time these Rodgers reports dropped, several teams had already made their big quarterback moves of the offseason: The Rams had traded for Matthew Stafford, the Colts had traded for Carson Wentz, the 49ers had traded up to acquire the draft’s no. 3 pick (which they used on Trey Lance), the Panthers had dealt for Sam Darnold, and the Broncos had traded for Teddy Bridgewater. If Rodgers wanted a move to happen, he needed to make these feelings known months ago. Yet while he didn’t get dealt, he did successfully humiliate the Packers on draft day a year after they humiliated him.
Why does Rodgers want out? Consider the context. Last offseason, Tom Brady left the Patriots for the Buccaneers, and Tampa Bay did whatever it took to surround him with a talented offensive supporting cast: It traded for Rob Gronkowski, drafted prized lineman Tristan Wirfs, and signed Leonard Fournette and Antonio Brown as free agents. Over the past few years, the Saints took salary-cap gymnastics to the extreme to provide Drew Brees with playmakers for his final few playoff runs: They brought in players like Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook while keeping their entire core intact. (At one point this offseason, the Saints were $100 million over the cap.) Say what you want about New Orleans’s wild spending habits and history of trading away draft picks, but nobody can doubt its sense of urgency.
Then there’s the Packers. They went 13-3 in the 2019 season and were blown out by the 49ers in the NFC championship game. They responded to that with the exact opposite of urgency. When everyone and their mother wanted them to take a wideout in the 2020 draft, which had one of the deepest receiver classes in years, Green Bay traded up to select Utah State quarterback Jordan Love at no. 26. Then, in the second round, the Packers took Boston College running back AJ Dillon. This may go down as one of the most catastrophic drafts for a team ever. It’s one thing to draft a quarterback who busts. It’s another to draft a quarterback whose selection convinces your franchise icon and future first-ballot Hall of Famer to leave.
Even more mind-numbing is that Green Bay’s first two picks—Love and Dillon—were third-stringers for last season’s playoff run. Love is the only offensive player the Packers have taken in the first round since 2012, but he wasn’t active for a single game. (Tim Boyle was the backup QB.) Dillon was a reserve running back. Coming off a 13-3 campaign, the Packers used their first two draft picks to take players who did nothing to improve their roster. Meanwhile, the Bucs drafted Wirfs, who started at left tackle, and Antoine Winfield Jr., a defensive back who started 16 regular-season games and then picked off Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl.
Packers have selected 9 defensive players with their last 10 1st rounders:— FanDuel (@FanDuel) April 30, 2021
2021: Eric Stokes
2019: Darnell Savage & Rashan Gary
2018: Jaire Alexander
2016: Kenny Clark
2015: Damarious Randall
2013: Datone Jones
2012: Nick Perry
What’s most amazing about this is that it was clear Green Bay was making a mistake at the time. The Packers drafting Love was a full-circle moment, as the franchise famously took Rodgers to replace Favre while the latter was on the roster. But Rodgers was quick to point out the differences between the two situations on 10 Questions With Kyle Brandt last summer.
“As much as people want to make parallels to certain things, in 2004 the Packers were 10-6 and lost in the first round of the playoffs,” Rodgers told Brandt. In 2019, “We were 13-3 and one game from the Super Bowl and won a playoff game at home—and obviously [we] won our division. A little different circumstances. Not to mention that Brett had talked about retiring for a few years before [I was drafted] and I’ve talked about playing into my 40s. So when people start talking about the parallels to this and that, well, I fell to 24th. They traded up and drafted Jordan.”
Rodgers left out one more crucial difference. In 2005, he was considered a candidate to go no. 1, and many saw him as the best quarterback in the draft. At the 24th pick, he was an obvious and undeniable value. In 2020, Love was considered by many to be a second-rounder. In his draft guide, The Ringer’s Danny Kelly wrote that Love has “big questions around his decision-making and ball security” and “may need some time as a backup to refine his game.”
“I get it, I really do,” Rodgers told Brandt of the pick. “I don’t harbor any ill will about it. Was I bummed out? Of course. Who wouldn’t be? I wanted to play my entire career in Green Bay. I love the city. I grew up there, really. I got there when I was 21, I’m 36 now. You know, a lot changes during that time. But look, I get it.”
He not only got it—he used the Love pick as motivation. Rodgers led the Packers to another 13-3 season in 2020. He passed for an NFL-best 48 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He had the highest touchdown rate and the lowest interception rate. Rodgers also led the league in completion percentage, passer rating, QBR, adjusted yards per attempt, and basically every other statistic that matters. The Packers then wrecked the Rams in the playoffs before the Bucs game revealed all of the problems that were bubbling up within the organization.
The first was that the Packers didn’t address their lack of depth. Poor Kevin King was embarrassed against Tampa Bay, but the cornerback was not 100 percent healthy for that game: He was playing through a back injury. And once an injured player makes two massive mistakes, it’s on the coach to pull him off the field. But the Packers didn’t have enough other options at cornerback to take King out. That’s not King’s fault; it’s an organizational failure for which the blame falls on Gutekunst. If the Packers had drafted a cornerback with one of their top picks in last year’s draft, they might have won the Super Bowl. That’s likely a huge reason they used their first-round pick on Thursday to take Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes.
But the second, bigger problem revealed itself in the waning moments of the game. With the Packers down eight points with a little more than two minutes remaining, they faced a fourth-and-goal. Despite having one of the best red zone offenses in NFL history, head coach Matt LaFleur decided to kick a field goal to cut the deficit to five. Rodgers never got the ball back.
The fundamental error here was not putting the ball in the hands of the MVP (and opting instead to give it to Tom Brady). That is the kind of scared mistake that young coaches sometimes make, and it happens in basketball too. But there’s a more damning aspect of this failure. Rodgers was unaware on third down that the Packers would be attempting a field goal on fourth down.
“Matt allowed me to call that third down play,” Rodgers said after the game. “If I had known we were going to kick it, if we had to get it, maybe I would have gone with some sort of crossing routes there instead. But I thought we were going to have four chances to go.”
This is football malpractice. Rodgers, one of the smartest quarterbacks to ever play the sport, was working with incomplete information from his head coach in the most critical moment of Green Bay’s season.
“One thing you definitely learn: I know my communication with [Rodgers] should have been better in that situation,” LaFleur told NBC’s Peter King. “Maybe on that third down we do something a little bit different. His mindset was, ‘We got four downs here.’ It comes down to communication, and that’s something I gotta learn from and be better with him.”
This is the Packers in a nutshell: Their complete and utter lack of urgency on that fourth down mirrors their complete and utter lack of urgency in roster construction. And their complete and utter lack of communication with Rodgers in that moment mirrors their complete and utter lack of communication with him about plans for the future. Not only did that NFC championship game represent everything that’s wrong with the Packers, but it showed Rodgers everything he doesn’t have.
There are three more factors worth mentioning in the Rodgers-Packers saga. The first is the impact of Rodgers losing that game to the Bucs at Lambeau Field. He entered the 2020 season with a 1-3 record in NFC championship games, with all four coming on the road. Rodgers won only the first one he played against the Bears, in 2011, and was 0-3 since.
“I’ve said this before: We’ve got to get one of these [championship games] at home,” Rodgers told reporters after losing to the 49ers in the NFC title game following the 2019 season. “It’s a different ballgame. It’s different playing in 20-degree weather and snow. Cold and wind is a different type of game than playing here [in San Francisco].”
When Mike McCarthy was Green Bay’s head coach, there was a feeling around the league that he wasted a chunk of Rodgers’s prime. After the Packers brought in LaFleur, they finally captured the NFC’s no. 1 seed and hosted the first conference championship game of Rodgers’s career. And then they lost by putting the ball in Brady’s hands instead of Rodgers’s. Asked after the game how he felt, Rodgers said, “I’m just pretty gutted.”
The second compounding factor here is that he lost this game to Tom Brady. As mentioned above, the Buccaneers did everything for Brady that the Packers have not done for Rodgers. Brady also provided Rodgers with a blueprint for how to navigate this offseason.
We may come to look back on Brady leaving the Pats for the Buccaneers as not just the final piece in his case as the greatest player of all time, but also as the football version of The Decision. In 2010, LeBron James turned his free agency into theater, which was a mistake. But his truly revolutionary act was taking his career into his own hands—fan hatred be damned—by leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for a superior basketball situation in Miami. Once LeBron blazed that trail, dozens of NBA players followed. From Kevin Durant to Kawhi Leonard to Anthony Davis to James Harden to Paul George, NBA players now regularly apply pressure to their teams to either do what they want or trade them to someone who will.
Brady leaving New England for Tampa Bay might blaze a similar trail for NFL quarterbacks. Before this offseason, when was the last time a star quarterback requested a trade? This year, it’s happened three times, with Deshaun Watson, Russell Wilson, and Rodgers. The league’s other top quarterbacks saw what Brady did and now they want to do it too.
Finally, there’s the compounding factor of Rodgers’s personality. The man knows how to hold a grudge. He’s never let go of the 49ers selecting Alex Smith over him with the no. 1 pick in 2005. This was reportedly a sticking point when the Packers hired McCarthy as head coach, simply because McCarthy was the offensive coordinator for that Niners team. But Rodgers’s grudges go deeper than football. In 2016, Tyler Dunne wrote for Bleacher Report that Rodgers had not spoken to his family since December 2014. Rodgers’s parents reportedly sent him Christmas presents; he reportedly mailed them back. Dunne wrote that Rodgers’s immediate family did not even have his cellphone number, which Rodgers’s father confirmed in 2017. The Packers chose the wrong person to engage in a staring contest.
Some have pointed out that if Rodgers does force his way out of Green Bay, he’ll be hard-pressed to find a better place to win. NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal noted that the Packers have the league’s best wide receiver in Davante Adams, the league’s best left tackle in David Bakhtiari, one of the league’s top running backs in Aaron Jones, and a head coach who is one of six in NFL history to win 24 of his first 30 games in LaFleur. Where exactly is Rodgers going to find a superior situation?
But that might not be a convincing argument to Rodgers. He is the straw that stirs the drink, and he’s pissed. He’s reportedly at the point where he “doesn’t like anyone in the front office for a variety of reasons.” Don’t get it confused: The problem is personal, not personnel.
The Packers are not the only team to royally fuck up their quarterback situation because they forgot that players are human beings who have emotions. The Eagles got caught in a similar situation last year by being too clever by half. In 2020, Philadelphia drafted Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts with its second-round pick, with executive VP of football operations Howie Roseman explaining that the team wanted to be a “quarterback factory.” Incumbent starter Carson Wentz’s confidence promptly melted, as he became the NFL’s worst statistical quarterback. (Perhaps taunting the player whose old backup is already enshrined with a statue outside the stadium was not the right method to instill confidence.) Having two quarterbacks was a trendy leaguewide movement for a minute, with teams like the Eagles calling the backup their “second quarterback.” But that approach just blew up in the face of Philly and Green Bay, lending credence to far more conventional football wisdom: When you have two quarterbacks, you have none.
The Eagles absorbed a $34 million dead money cap hit for Wentz after trading him to the Colts in March. (Dead money is when a team has a cap charge for a player who is no longer on the team.) That is the largest figure ever, by a lot. A stunning 19 percent of Philadelphia’s 2021 budget will go toward Wentz playing for Indianapolis; by comparison, Brady will take up less than 6 percent of Tampa Bay’s budget next year. Mahomes, even after signing a megaextension last summer, will take up just 4 percent of Kansas City’s 2021 budget. These are the types of salary-cap calamities that separate winning organizations from losing ones—and the Packers may soon find themselves on the wrong side of the ledger.
If the Packers trade Rodgers before June 1, they would surpass the Eagles for the largest dead money figure ever, as Rodgers would still account for $38 million. To put that in perspective, the Lakers are paying LeBron James $39 million this season. But if the Packers wait until after June 1 (for NFL accounting reasons), trading Rodgers would be easier to stomach. A trade after June 1 would split that $38 million across two seasons: $21 million of dead money in 2021, and $17 million in 2022. So instead of paying the equivalent of LeBron’s salary for Rodgers to play elsewhere, they would have a Victor Oladipo–level dead money hit in 2021 and then a Ricky Rubio–level dead money hit in 2022.
It’s unclear what kind of contract extension would even fix things right now. Green Bay has attempted to extend Rodgers’s contract, but Rodgers has declined. The Packers also did not restructure his contract this offseason in the way that many teams do with their star quarterbacks in order to create short-term cap relief. The trade-off of this type of move is that it extends a team’s commitment to a player. Clearly, at least one side here did not want that, though it’s unclear whether it’s Rodgers, the team, or both.
And we haven’t even gotten to the competitive implications of Rodgers potentially leaving and Love being the starting quarterback for the Packers in 2021 after he couldn’t even win the second-string job in 2020. “We’ve been working through this for a little while now, and I just think it may take some time,” Gutekunst said after Thursday’s first round. “But [Rodgers] is a guy that kind of makes this thing go. He gives us the best chance to win, and we’re going to work towards that end.”
Gutekunst added: “We’re not going to trade Aaron Rodgers.”
Green Bay and Rodgers are now in a staring contest, a game of chicken, a pissing match. Whatever you want to call it, it is on. The stakes are simple. Rodgers has little leverage if he shows up to training camp and plays in the games. But if he’s willing to sit out and give up millions in salary, fines, and signing bonus money, he has a lot of leverage. And Rodgers has plenty of money. He’s earned more than $240 million in his Packers career, and that doesn’t include endorsements. If the Packers don’t trade him, he can pull a Carson Palmer (or a Brett Favre) and retire until the team trades his rights elsewhere. Rodgers could live out his days in Los Angeles with his movie star fiancée—and maybe even host Jeopardy! at the palatial Sony Studios lot in Culver City. If Rodgers really never wants to play for Green Bay again, he has options.
After the Packers lost to the Bucs in January, Rodgers was asked whether the game would haunt him. “It’s not going to haunt me,” he said. “It’s just going to hurt for a while.”
Instead, how the Packers have handled Rodgers may come back to haunt them. If Rodgers doesn’t come back, the Packers will look like idiots.